Washington’s Message: Military Contracts Trump Human Rights

September 8th, 2019 - by Jack Detsch / Al-Monitor

US Waives Human Rights Rules to Send Military Aid to Egypt

Jack Detsch / Al-Monitor

 (September 5, 2019) — The State Department has approved the release of $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt despite the Trump administration’s admission that Cairo has actively prevented civil dissent and cut down on democratic reforms.

In a memo sent to Congress and obtained by Al-Monitor, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waived human rights conditions that apply to $300 million in US aid, calling the Arab nation “important to the national security interests of the United States” for providing access to the Suez Canal, overflight rights and fighting terror in the Sinai desert and along its borders with Libya and Sudan.

The US aid, known as foreign military financing, was due to expire Sept. 30 without a State Department waiver. In releasing the assistance, the State Department acknowledged that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has restricted freedom of expression since the former general was reelected in 2018 after forcing most opposition candidates from the race.

But strict limits on civil liberties have not impacted Egypt’s relationship with the US administration. Just weeks after meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House in April, Sisi’s backers in the Egyptian parliament approved constitutional changes that will allow the sitting president to stay in power until 2030, and expand his control over the judiciary.

Speaking to reporters alongside Sisi before at meeting at the G-7 summit in France last month, Trump called the Egyptian leader a “friend of mine now a long time,” continuing a steady stream of praise dating back to the 2016 presidential campaign.

Outside of the White House, Egypt has faced a rising tide of criticism on Capitol Hill. Congress has doubled down on threats to limit US military assistance to Egypt in recent months, with House lawmakers joining their Senate counterparts in a push to limit Egypt’s aid to $1 billion each year.

The lower chamber had long resisted calls to cut assistance to Egypt because of its close relationship with Israel since the 1979 Camp David Accords, although Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has held up $105 million in military aid since 2018. Cairo has refused to pay for the medical bills of an American citizen wounded in an Apache helicopter attack, and continues to implement laws that restrict NGOs and civil society organizations, over US objections.

The Trump administration has also been frustrated by Egypt limiting US oversight of the terror fight in the Sinai desert against al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates. Pompeo said in his memo to lawmakers that Egypt “continues to limit access to the conflict area in northern Sinai,” including where American weapons are used.

The State Department “is not aware of any steps taken” to probe allegations of 14 extrajudicial killings in the region detailed in a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year.

In a meeting at the Pentagon last month, Defense Secretary Mark Esper urged his Egyptian counterpart to stick to a counterinsurgency-style fight in the Sinai desert.

Pompeo’s waiver report — mandated by Congress in a 2018 spending bill — also chastises Egypt for cruel conditions in jails and detention centers after former President Mohammed Morsi died after fainting in court this summer, reported failures to provide fair trial rights and forced disappearances of political prisoners.

British protesters condemn approval of military sales to Saudi regime. (Photo: Middle East Monitor)

The only areas where the State Department noted improvements in Egypt’s track record were with regard to North Korea, where Pompeo said Cairo had cut embassy staffers, and taking steps to convict some perpetrators of violence against the Coptic Christian population.

The State Department said it notified Congress of the decision on Aug. 29, three weeks after Pompeo approved the waiver.  

“We have raised — and will continue to stress at senior levels — the fundamental importance of respect for human rights, universal freedoms, and the need for a robust civil society,” a State Department official told Al-Monitor.

But a UN Panel of Experts report released on Wednesday found that North Korea is sending technicians to Iran, Syria and Egypt in violation of UN sanctions to establish a supply chain for dual-use missile technology.

Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor’s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes